03/02/2017 04:57 SAST | Updated 03/02/2017 04:57 SAST

Beware The Cynicism Of Powerful Men Like Christo Wiese, Who Are Only Interested In Keeping The Current Social Order

Focusing on inequality is not a "perverse obsession", as South Africa's richest man would have us believe. It's necessary to collapse an untenable hegemony.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
South African magnate Christo Wiese, whose companies include Steinhoff and investment heavyweight Brait, listens during an interview in Cape Town, South Africa, September 27, 2016.

South Africa's richest man, billionaire Christo Wiese, confidently lectured the nation on Wednesday on the correct way to think about poverty and wealth. As reported by The Daily Maverick's Rebecca Davis, he said South Africa has a "perverse obsession about the rich with little regard for what would happen to the poor if the rich were pulled down".

It is clear that market interactions are not zero-sum games, and, as lately redeemed U.S. president George W. Bush once said, we can "make the pie higher". I am not interested in arguments about the dynamics of "fair" exchange. What I am interested in are the moral and ideological dimensions of a statement like Wiese's.

If he's right, the super-rich deserve our gratitude for keeping the country afloat, and not our nasty pitchforks and mischievous talk of "expropriation without compensation".

As most fellow citizens can tell you, South African society is organised in such a way that the people who work the hardest, on the dreariest tasks, after travelling the longest, with the least food in their stomachs, are also the people who get the least reward, lead the most precarious lives, and die the soonest. It's amazing anybody puts up with it.

If, as the political philosopher John Rawls urges us to imagine, we had to sign up to a society without first knowing which role we were going to play, who in their right mind would gamble on South Africa? An 80% chance of a lifetime of unreasonable toil and hardship? Hell, no! Can I sign up for Sweden instead?

According to one school of thought, the coexistence of the fabulously rich and the grindingly poor is not in fact Wiese's happy my-rising-tide-lifts-your-boat scenario, but a glaring contradiction. Poor people are asked to accept – against the evidence of their talent, their humanity, and their entitlements to thrive – that without the feasts of the wealthy, there would be no scraps for the plates of the poor.

This way of looking at the world can only be sustained because it is sold to us, from countless directions, every day. We have entire think-tanks devoted to making us believe the contradictions aren't there, that the system is fair, that we must just work harder and everything will be OK.

Ubiquitous advertising instils in us a religious devotion to consumption, the proper reward for our ceaseless strife.

The ruling group must make the conditions of its rulership appear god-given, as natural as gravity, in order to lead with as little friction as possible. The system that lands one man with R80-billion, and rural woman with nothing and struggling to find food, is just fine, and the way the world works, and, as long as you can show that the rural woman would be worse off if the billionaire upped sticks to Australia, the morality of the system that resulted in the distribution in the first place can remain unexamined.

Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images
School children looking at a mural portraying Antonio Gramsci.

How this works, as Antonio Gramsci famously observed, is that the ruling class succeeds at getting the consent of a broad cross-section of society for their way of seeing the world: an outcome he called hegemony. A group achieves hegemony, says Gramsci, after it realises that its interests "can and must become the interests of... subordinate groups" and creates a "certain compromise equilibrium" where people are sufficiently convinced that they have a stake in the system.

This is precisely what Wiese is articulating: that it is in all of our interests to leave him alone. Though "white monopoly capitalists" (as the term goes) like Wiese no longer enjoy the direct access to political power they did under apartheid, the hegemony of the market ideology that represents their interests is rarely credibly challenged.

Indeed, globally, political alternatives to the neo-liberal consensus have been discredited, as the inevitable and irreversible revolutions that Karl Marx predicted would result in a more just and equal world turned out to be partial, stillborn, short-lived, or repressive.

All of this does not make a society fair, nor does it make focusing on inequality a "perverse obsession". What is truly perverse is the cynicism of a powerful man who sells a dangerous fiction that merely maintains the current social order.

Hegemony requires constant renovation as the contradictions become unbearable. Eventually, little by little and piece by piece, or all at once, counter-hegemonic action overturns the existing order and installs a new hegemony. If Wiese is truly interested in having his interests respected in the new order, he would be well advised to change his tune.